Friday, February 05, 2010

The X Factor in Parenting

Before I get started on this post, which is really just a longish thought that's been roaming around in my head, I have to tell everyone: "WE HAVE NEW FLOORS IN OUR HOUSE!" :o) However, we have very few area rugs, and we spent all of our money on the floors, so I'll be taking up donations at a later time. (Kidding.) (Kinda.)

On to my profound (to me) thought for the moment.

Parenting more than one child has really opened my eyes to something. Sometimes, when something I've done or said has had the desired impact on one of my kids, I think to myself "Hey, that was a good parenting moment right there." Don't we all do that? (And we should!)

Sometimes, though, things that happen as a result of my good and proper parenting actually occur--at least partially--due to the X Factor: The Child.

A quick example. When Ryan was a baby, I went and put him in his crib one night, and he fell asleep. He did that pretty easily and regularly for the most part, and continues to be able to sleep independently without too much parenting. When I only had him, I put this phenomenon down to our excellent parenting strategy. Clearly, we were doing something right. ;)

Enter Morgan. And then Sean. The exact same strategies (plus those important years of experience, which should not be discounted in the least) do not have the same effect on them. Actually, Sean is still very easy, but he's different than Ryan. Morgan has always been hard to get to sleep, and has a difficult time putting herself to sleep. She's getting better, and as with all things Children, goes through phases of progress and backsliding.

But my whole I'm Excellent at Getting my Children to Sleep Theory has been blown out of the water. And this is the Multiple Children Bonus--if I hadn't had more kids, I'd have gone on thinking that I was just the best parent ever at getting kids to sleep.

Each kid is different, and in addition to Excellent Parenting Strategies (which certainly exist), there's each individual child and her temperament AND her free will to take into account.

It works the other way, too, and this can be very comforting. Ryan is nearly eight years old and STILL has trouble sharing toys* and being kind when playing with other kids. We have several Excellent Parenting Strategies we've used (and continue to use) to help him learn that a complete freak-out is not necessary if someone accidentally touches your stuff. As you might imagine, this issue has caused me to worry about him, me, and whether or not I've "done something wrong."

I haven't done anything wrong: Enter Morgan. She is a kind and generous soul. Learning to take turns was never difficult for her. She doesn't mind sharing crayons, or letting someone have a turn. She willingly shares her coloring books with other kids in the waiting room of Taekwondo. She takes turns with her friends and brothers on the computer or with certain toys.

Now, when I was helping her learn those skills and the reasons (again, *) for sharing, I used the same exact strategies I used with Ryan. I modeled taking turns. I helped her find other things to do while she waited for her turn. I shared boxes of crayons with her. I showed her that her friend feels sad if she can't share the crayons. Sometimes, I enforced the sharing. Etc. Etc. Etc.

Here's my point: Morgan got it, years ago. Ryan, three years her senior, STILL has trouble with this concept and struggles to learn these skills. (And yes, it's not only distressing, it's annoying as you-know-what.) So my Excellent Parenting--which is necessary and I do think helpful and I will continue to do--is not the only factor here.

It's those darn kids, and all of their personalities and free will--the X Factor. In many ways, Sean is still emerging, and I don't yet know what I'm dealing with, which keeps things interesting! I can make a few generalizations about his personality, but I can't predict how he might deal with taking turns or potty training or when he'll read or anything like that, because he's just not developed enough for me to have a really good idea yet.

With the third child, I can be sage enough to say that he'll have his own special Seanie difficulties, and he and I will struggle over them. They'll be different Things from Ryan's and Morgan's Things. Because he is a different kid yet again.

I'm not trying to suggest that good parenting is futile or that it's not possible to have objectively good parenting practices. Clearly I think parenting is really, really important, since I do that as a job and think about it all the time and write about it, too. But sometimes I need to remind myself that Parenting isn't all there is to it.

*Sharing in and of itself is not a value for us in the same way it is for most families, and I honestly can't remember if I've written about this topic before. But taking turns with friends/siblings or sharing a box of crayons is a rational skill, and when I talk to Ryan I focus on the rational reasons for doing so, and do not take an altruistic stance on sharing.


Bill Brown said...

I've had the same experience. I've also been floored by how much nature ends up having over nurture. Before kids, I thought that behavior and personality were almost exclusively environmental but I can now see that it's at least half and half.

C. August said...

Relating to your asterisk: we're the same way with sharing. We discuss it, but in the end, we help to uphold each child's property rights if they choose to jealously guard the toy/food/random-piece-of-crap.

They each know that we won't force them to share, and each fully understands that if the other doesn't want to, they don't have to.

Now, we certainly counsel them on the rational and selfish reasons to share, and they are usually willing to do it. And, in truth, they are very good at sharing. I think that one of the reasons they are good at it is precisely _because_ it's voluntary, and they know they could rightfully refuse if they wanted to.

It's one of the clearest examples of the Objectivist ethics in parenting I've seen, both in terms of how my kids relate to each other and to other kids, as well as how other altruism-guided parents approach sharing-as-duty, and how much the kids resent it.

Lady Baker said...

I just started a recent post on contracts out with:

"I want to start again with the caveat of how thoroughly I have come to appreciate the differences among kids. There are many children who would find this approach much too wordy, drawn out, or process-focussed. I never would have dreamed how much of successful parenting is based on a solid comitmtment to improve and lots of trial and error with your own kid."

They are such individuals! While the core principles are the same, the effective tools are so much more varied than I would have expected. One kid's golden, parental connection results in violent resentment and push back from another. It's interesting how we each become such experts in the kid(s) we parent.

T Kent said...

My older sister told me to take special note of my kid's characteristics in the first few hours after being born.

Kid #1: very quiet crier, didn't look around, very gangly and a very awkward movements, took a while to sort out this 'feeding' thing.

Kid #2: flipped and flopped around (rolling over back to front, a skill she NEVER lost!), lifted her head to look around with her big brown eyes WIDE open while lifting herself off the bed with her arms (yes, she did 5 push ups in her first hour!), her cry/ scream made could make your ears bleed.

Kid #3: watched the world go by, nary a sound, waiting for things to happen to her, and happy whatever happened.

As they have grown, these personality (and physical) characteristics have grown with them and are part of who they are.

This definitely changed my understanding of tabula rasa - their mind is empty at day one, but certain personality traits and certain characteristics weren't. And these have a strong influence (still not sure how much) over how they learned and filled that mind.


Anonymous said...

To me, this is the core of home schooling. Every child is different and unique. At school, each child is expected to learn the same thing, in the same way, at the same pace. But that is not how children learn. Not how they learn to sleep, talk, share, read, do math, write essays. And the variety is what makes the world richer . . thats the part I have to remember, because conformity LOOKS so much easier . . .

Ansley Cox said...

I feel that my huge Parenting-at-Night ego has been deflated a little...until now, it has been beyond the shadow of a doubt that I'm Excellent at Getting my Children to Sleep. I guess it's good to read your post before Child #2. Now I won't doubt my capabilities when I'm wondering why #2 isn't passing out within 2 minutes of being put to bed.

Kelly Elmore said...

This is definitely my experience regarding Livy's fierce independence. It's just who she is (and yes, Tim, from day 1), and though I have worked hard not to squash it, I don't think I made her that way with my mad parenting skills. One of the reasons I try to parent in the most excellent way I can is not to make my child a particular way, but to NOT make my child a particular way (not to interfere and make her repress things about herself.)

Rational Jenn said...

Thanks for your comments, everyone!

Bill, yup! About half and half.

C., We have the same strategy regarding sharing. We have explicitly tied rational sharing/taking turns (those are different things!) to the Trader Principle, and that's been such a great way to explain and demonstrate both ideas to the kids.

Lady Baker, you wrote: While the core principles are the same, the effective tools are so much more varied than I would have expected., and I couldn't agree more! My parenting principles remain the same for each of my children, but how we handle issues (and whether we handle them) depends very much on the context--the X Factor!

Tim, this is my understanding of tabula rasa as well. The mind is without concepts at birth. However, personality traits and temperament is present from the first. Another things that having more than one child has demonstrated to me. They're individual human beings right from the start.

dbmamaz, I agree, this is one of the reasons I am glad we homeschool, individualized attention.

Ansley, I'm certain you are the Best Parent Ever at Getting Charlie to Sleep. Nobody better! I was the Best Parent Ever at Getting Ryan to Sleep, just not Morgan or Sean. :p

Kelly, this is something we've talked about many times. :o) Sometimes I catch myself fighting against someone's inborn personality (persistence or sensitivity) and need to realize that not only is that a losing battle for both of us, it's much better for everyone's mental health if I try to work WITH the trait instead of trying to change it.

Thanks again! :o)

Bill Brown said...

As a counterpoint, I am now convinced that my wife is a Goddess at Potty Training. She has now potty trained four kids successfully with perhaps a handful of accidents. Our son Paul, who turned two in December, is now almost fully potty trained: he slept through the night without wetting his diaper at all though we're not prepared to test how far that goes just yet.

With four of such disparate personalities, I am forced to conclude that she's got some magic touch. For the life of us, however, we can't figure out what we're doing that's specifically right and repeatable so we can't offer any advice (or gain any lucrative book contracts) to those having trouble.

Carly said...

Bill - maybe your kids all inherited an awesome go-in-the-potty gene. Congrats either way...I look forward to the day!

Mona Mcclelland said...

Thank you for this information. You know there is no manual for raising kids and unfortunately many parents are still passing on outdated and antiquated programs that were passed down to them by their well intentioned parents. It is important to BE a great role model to your children by sharing your value based foundation and then living your life fully in accordance with this plan. Being a martyr simply sends mixed messages and disrupts any congruency in your household. YOU have to be the one to become clear about your life and as you do you WILL inspire your children to do the same....
(Mona McClelland Abundant Life Guide & Health Coaching Specialist)